Every parent wants her child to eat normally and healthfully. Every parent wants her child to be free of the societal pressures to eat less and lose weight. However, most parents struggle with their own demons when it comes to eating. No one is immune from the pressures to be thin, the newest fad diet, the endless stream of food advertising or the onslaught of confusing nutritional advice. The unspoken truth is that children carefully observe their parents' behavior around everything, including food. Kids will be aware of the discrepancy between how their parents eat and how they eat. They will notice how daddy skips breakfast or how mommy sneaks dessert or how daddy is always on a diet or how mommy is ashamed of how she looks.
The obvious answer is for parents to fix their own food issues. But parents, at age 30 or 35 or 40, have been trying to solve their eating problems for years. Although parents often report a shift in their eating habits after having children, there is no magic fix. Sooner or later, parents will find the same old thoughts and behaviors creeping up on them combined with the added pressure of trying to hide these embarrassing habits from their children.
So is this just another unavoidable source of parental guilt? Are children doomed to the same endless cycle of food and weight preoccupation? Are parents not equipped to teach their children a new way of eating? Based on the last post, I laid out the concept that children have an innate sense of when to eat and when to stop. A parent's job is to teach kids how to identify and recognize their bodies' needs and then act accordingly. It isn't necessary for the parent to solve her own food issues in order to teach her children about their own internal cues. The parent doesn't have to be perfect because it is not about modelling behavior but learning about your body. The conversation shifts from junk food and thinness to healthful eating and hunger. Every family will have to handle the same outside pressures, but creating a new avenue for discussion will allow children an alternate way to talk about food inside the home.
As the parent refocuses the discussion from conforming to societal norms to child-based learning, she needs to know how to handle her own food issues. Any parent will be tempted to do one of two things. The first is to hide her concerns about food because they are too shameful. The second is to impose her own rules on the child. This would simultaneously lift the pressure on the parent and confuse the child by obfuscating her ability to learn how to eat.
The most effective strategy is to expect that food and weight are complicated topics any family will tackle slowly over time. Parents will struggle how to explain this issue to the best of their ability, just as with the age-old discussion about where babies come from. Success rests on two points: sharing just enough information appropriate to the child's age and showing just enough humility. Children will be curious but usually need a simple answer to satisfy them. Too much information confuses them and too little only piques their curiousity. Many parents will either avoid the topic completely or feel obligated to have a long discussion which goes way over the child's head. In this instance, the parents' clue to stop the conversation comes from the child. Children will ask questions until they understand enough and then move on. Parents should move on too. The conversation is likely to continue on and off for years. Once children know their parents are open to discussing food and weight, they will understand it's all right to ask more questions.
There is no need to hide that the parent is still learning about food or thinks about weight. It can be comforting to the child when a parent is honest. Since the child will observe a parent's behaviors or hear her discuss her worries, a sincere response will match the child's thoughts. Hiding or lying forces a child to reconcile her confusion often in deleterious ways. This approach to discussing food won't shelter children but instead will allow them to understand and hopefully, in time, find a different way to think about food.
Younger kids need to learn about food and their bodies. Older kids are more curious how people think about eating or why others talk about being thin. As kids get even older, outside pressures will become more powerful. How can a parent even begin to compete? What do these conversations with kids look like? This information rests in the home, family and community. And that is the topic of the next post.